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Story Excerpt

Great Martian Railways
by Hûw Steer

Illustrated by Eldar Zakirov

Blowing the whistle wasn’t nearly as impressive as it should have been. For one thing, there was barely any atmosphere to carry the noise; for another, the water reclamation systems meant that no steam was ejected into the air at all, so the normally satisfying plume was entirely absent, sucked back into the condensers.

But she heard it, in the sealed cab. She felt the great boiler thrum, heard the muffled shriek of released steam, and grinned as she closed the whistle and diverted more steam to the massive pistons. Ahead of her, silver rails gleamed like tear-tracks in the red soil of Mars.

The locomotive was massive. It had to be. The nuclear reactor that occupied half the front section was as small as human science could make it, but that was still massive. The cylindrical boiler in front of it was huge to match. But the shape of it was still familiar, to anyone of a certain obsessive disposition, anyone old enough to remember the heritage railways or young enough to still be watching children’s television. Its smallest wheels might be six feet tall, its funnel wide enough to swallow you whole—but it was still a steam train.

It was just in a different environment, that was all.

The reactor hummed beautifully. The engineer marveled at it, even though she’d built it. Clean steam, she thought. No coal-smoke, no pollutants for another hundred years. Then there would be half-lives and radioactive decay to deal with, of course, but that was just a fact of living on Mars these days: solar cells and wind turbines did a huge amount of work, but ever since uranium deposits had been found beneath Utopia Planitia two decades ago, nuclear power had been here to stay.

It felt wrong to not have a soot-stained face, standing at the helm of this magnificent machine as it chugged out of its yard and into the Martian desert. It was a steam train! She should be covered in filth and wielding a shovel. That was how her ancestors had done it. But manually shoveling pellets of lethally radioactive uranium wasn’t the best way to ensure a long career as a train-driver.

She knelt down to check the “firebox,” as they still called it. No furnace doorway here; this was a lead-glass viewport five inches thick, allowing her to see the control rods in the reactor beyond. There was no need to see the rods, but the machine had felt wrong without it. And if this machine was anything, it was an exercise in “feeling right” over pure efficiency. A purely utilitarian train—like the light monorails that crisscrossed the dome cities—would have been light, electrical, and automated, a frail, elegant thing built with as few materials as possible.

This nuclear beast was none of those things. It was a thrown brick, a sledgehammer. And, for the task of crossing the vast expanses of the Martian desert, it was perfect.

The radio crackled.

“Lowell,” came a voice, “how are we looking?”

Lowell the engineer studied the gauges, though in truth she could tell just by the feel.

“Running smooth,” she reported. “I want to take her to 70 percent today.”

“All right,” came the reply from the control station back in Elysium. “Take care, but go for it. Show us what this thing can do.” And show them, of course: the Elysian investors crammed into the control room, wanting to know if this project was worth it.

The train was a prototype. It was her prototype. The first long-range, heavy-duty land vehicle constructed on Mars, for Mars. It was an experiment, and one that a lot of people were counting on to succeed. Hence the caution, the constant oversight, and the slow build in the testing of the train’s potential—a far cry from the relentless, uninhibited progress of the locomotive inventors of days long gone.

But to be fair, Lowell thought as she began opening valves, Stephenson at least always had air to breathe.

This locomotive was pressure-sealed throughout, to keep the steam and the oxygen in. Even then Lowell was wearing a pressure suit, though her helmet was clipped to her hip rather than over her face. (The health and safety documents said she should be wearing it at all times, but it was hard enough driving a nuclear steam train without a glass fishbowl on your head.) It had spent three years being built and tested inside the domes of Elysium City; another two being rebuilt and redesigned, and finally allowed to do endless laps of the little circuit of rails they’d built just outside the dome. It had done a few longer journeys, but none of any real distance.

Again, to be fair, Lowell thought, it’s mostly because there isn’t enough rail laid yet.

There was a lot of rail laid—but on mostly-empty Mars a “lot” of rail meant nothing. Five hundred kilometers of carbon-composite and titanium had been laid in a glistening arc out from Elysium into the desert of Utopia Planitia. More was being added all the time, deployed by drone-rovers and small teams of intrepid human engineers. But given the eventual goal was to encircle the whole planet several times over, five hundred kilometers was a drop in the nonexistent ocean. For now, they were just building the Utopia branch. Even if the nuclear train was a failure, having a rail out into the desert, toward the invaluable uranium mines, would be enormously helpful.

Lowell and her team were dreaming bigger, of course. Much bigger. There was a whole planet out there, and they’d connect it together if it killed them. And they’d only get that chance if she could prove the train was worth it.

“Full steam ahead,” she muttered and pulled a lever, and the locomotive leapt forward like a bullet from a gun.

The steam locomotives of old had, for the most part, not gone that fast. Only a few exceptions, like the Flying Scotsman, had ever topped a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour. Even the streamlined, purpose-built Mallard had only managed 203.Their boilers could handle about 250psi of pressure, shoving it through three huge cylinders to drive the wheels forward.

This locomotive’s boiler could take three times the pressure—unofficially, more like four. It had ten cylinders, and the reactor was a far more reliable and potent source of heat for its water than coal. The materials were newer and stronger in every way. And while it forced every crew compartment to be pressure-sealed and airlocked, the beautiful thing about Mars’ atmosphere was the lack of it. There was no air to resist them. That meant, given enough rail and a bold enough driver, that the locomotive could top five hundred kph without bursting a single rivet. And Lowell was a very bold driver.

She kept one eye on the boiler pressure and the other on the track ahead. With the exception of the reactor interface and a few other things, every dial and gauge in the cab was purely mechanical. It was old-fashioned, but it was reliable. Electronic readouts just wouldn’t have been the same. Of course, the copper pipes were high-spec alloy now, the dials machined so precisely that Stephenson would have wept. But then he would have blinked the tears away and leapt straight into the cab.

The speedometer crossed a hundred. Then, just a few minutes later, two hundred. Lowell looked out of the thick-glassed window at the track ahead. The air was clear today, with only a little red dust tinting the sky. There weren’t any sandstorms scheduled for days. Not that Lowell was worried. The locomotive was designed to take a sandstorm to the face and just keep on chugging. But even the most modern glass got scratched to hell by the stuff, and she hated driving blind.

Three hundred kph. She adjusted a few valves, keeping everything flowing nicely. The boiler was handling it superbly.

“How’s she doing?” Control asked.

“Handling like a dream,” Lowell replied. She blew the whistle again to release a little overpressure, imagining the shriek that wasn’t there. Steam burst from the funnel, only to be caught by the curving condenser pipe that ran along the top of the boiler. Outside the main reactor, uninsulated, it was incredibly cold—meaning that the steam became liquid water again within seconds, to be funneled back down into the water reservoir for reuse. The polar mines and algae synthesizers had provided plenty of water for Mars, but not so much that it could just be belched into the sky. Lowell hoped that, one day, it could be. She loved this locomotive like her own child, but without a trail of steam marking its course, it just wasn’t quite the same. One day.

Four hundred kph. She’d barely even noticed the change; the pistons were already chugging so fast, the wheels spinning, the endless desert so featureless that there was little to blur with the speed of her passage. She checked the only other piece of electronic equipment aboard; a live rail diagram beamed from Control, showing blockages and obstructions. But everything showed green.

“Four hundred and steady,” she reported to Control. “I’m going to push her to maximum.” There was plenty of track and power left to give.

“All right,” said Control. “Just be ready to drop back down.” There was caution in their words—for the benefit of the investors—but glee in their tone. Five hundred kilometers per hour across the Red Planet, Lowell thought. Nobody had ever done that—not on land, at least.

The reactor throbbed. The steam surged through the pistons. The locomotive streaked down the shining rails. The acceleration was slower but the speed was immense. Four fifty. Sixty. Seventy. Some of the gauges were almost in the red, but Lowell felt the vibrations, listened to the engine note, and knew it could take it.

Eighty.

“You’re in the red,” warned Control. “Dial it back.”

“She can take it,” replied Lowell.

Ninety.

“Lowell,” said Control—this time on a private channel straight to her earpiece, “don’t make me override you.”

“She can do it,” Lowell insisted. Ninety-five. The dials were definitely in the red. The pistons were straining. But they were so close.

“Lowell,” Control started, but then Lowell’s whoop of delight cut them off. The speedometer had just ticked over. Five hundred kph. Five hundred!

“That’s five hundred,” Lowell said, loud and clear and gleeful. “Easing her back down.” She opened valves and released pressure, not applying the brakes, just letting the engine slow and using the weight of the locomotive to drag its speed back down.

“Five hundred kph, ladies and gentlemen,” she heard Control saying to the investors. “That’s a Mars speed record right there. And we’re just getting started.” Lowell grinned to listen to Control slipping into sales mode. She tuned out the rest of their patter, attending to her great metal charge. She made sure to turn her microphone off as well—because she knew that, without realizing it, she’d soon start talking to the engine. The first time, when only Control had heard her, had been embarrassing enough.

“Well done, girl,” she heard herself murmur. “Well bloody done.” She patted the firebox plate, feeling the filtered warmth even through the thick lead lining. Lowell loved this machine dearly, every rivet and every pipe. But she was already thinking of ways to improve it. Because, as worried as Control had been, she knew that the locomotive had had more to give. Could have made five-fifty, she thought, before anything broke. Not that she wanted to push her beautiful creation to breaking point, but still. But with a few more outlet valves, she thought, and some tweaks to the intake flow . . . Six hundred? Six-fifty?

The locomotive was too heavy for the sky to be the limit . . . but the horizon? They’d be surging past that in no time.

*   *   *

Riding in a rover had been a novel experience once. Now it never failed to disappoint.

Lowell bounced and juddered around in the passenger seat of the lightweight, stripped-down buggy, breathing bottled oxygen that tasted faintly of sulphur. Control—who did have a normal name, that name being Noa Waters—was driving, though it was only possible to tell when they looked right at Lowell and she could see through the glass face of their helmet. Long-range rovers had enclosed and pressurized crew cabins, but Waters and Lowell weren’t going far. Lowell thought smugly of the pressurized cabin of her locomotive, now resting and cooling in a siding some twenty kilometers behind them. But as mighty as it was, it could only take them to the end of the line. That was now six hundred kilometers long, almost at the entrance to the Planitia’s biggest uranium mine.

“So,” said Waters through their helmet intercom, “how did she handle?” The whole team had had a formal debrief after the investor show three days ago and their new speed record, but as the investors had still been present, there had been an emphasis on the “formal.” This was the first chance Lowell and Waters had had the chance to chat since. There had been too much to do. And the cab of a thundering locomotive wasn’t exactly a great place for a quiet conversation.

“Like a dream,” Lowell replied happily. It was literally true. Lowell’s nights were filled with silver rails and plumes of steam. “And she’s running perfectly today.” The maintenance team had swarmed over the locomotive for two full days, checking and rechecking every pipe and valve, ensuring the reactor integrity was perfect, before Lowell had been allowed to take it out again. Today, she’d kept it to a sedate three hundred kph to bring her and Waters to the end of the line—a gentle two-hour shakedown to work out any kinks from the high-speed run. There seemed to be no problems whatsoever. She smiled fondly as she thought of the locomotive in its siding, being tended by a flock of engineers. It had earned a few days of light work.

“That she is,” agreed Waters, smiling beneath their helmet. “The investors loved it. Pushing the boundaries, shooting for the moons, all the good buzzwords.”

“And did they . . .” Waters knew what Lowell was going to ask, and their smile turned into a grin.

“Why don’t you look to your left?”

Lowell did. For a moment she just saw bouncing desert, but then Waters slowed the rover down on a smooth patch, turned a little, and Lowell saw silver—two lines of it slicing through the sand like swords.

“The Hellas line,” she breathed. Waters nodded.

“We got approval,” they said. “It’s a hell of an undertaking. But we’ve got the budget and we started as soon as they said go. The team in Hellas are laying rail too.” They chuckled. “I think they’re going to try and race us to the midpoint. That’ll be fun.” They drove right up to the rails, stopped the rover, and stepped carefully out with that strange, awkward low-gravity grace. Lowell followed.

She stared at the unconnected rails. They weren’t anything yet: just strips of complex alloy, already reddened with dust—the static fields that would keep them clean wouldn’t be turned on until the track was finished. And what a track it would be—nearly three thousand kilometers of rail, lancing out from the Utopia desert and then veering south. Lowell had seen the plans. She knew them by heart. Out through Utopia—not a straight line south to their destination but arcing to stay on flat desert for as long as possible, turning through the Isidis Planitia before cutting through the Libyan mountains, sliding between the towering peaks of Tyrrhena and Huygens before coming to a halt at the edge of the vast crater that was Hellas Planitia, where vast Hellas City squatted, safe from the howling sandstorms but cut off from the rest of Mars. Cut off until the rails were laid. Until Lowell drove her locomotive right across the planet to reach them.

The rails were short now. But Lowell could see figures in the distance in bulky work-suits, heavyweight lifter-drones and rovers hauling more sections of track into place. Far away in Hellas, the same would be being done, but in the other direction. They’d meet in the middle somewhere—and then all they’d need would be a few stations to link them all together, some sort of switch-yard at Hellas…

It would take months. Maybe longer. But it was happening.

She snapped out of her reverie and turned to the expectant Waters. She grinned so broadly that she threatened to crack her helmet.

“We’re going to drive steam trains across Mars,” she said, delighting in the absurdity and the truth of it.

“We are,” said Waters. But they looked worried. “You really think this is going to work?” They’d both been working on this project since the beginning. But while Lowell had been actually building the locomotive, Waters had been looking at the big picture. The maps, the investors, the public will—the ephemeral, conceptual stuff that would let the steel dreams of Lowell and her engineers come true.

“Noa,” said Lowell, “I think it’s going to blow this planet’s mind.”

*   *   *

There was a crowd in the desert, clustered around the break in the rails: press drones, officials, and dignitaries sitting in rovers and standing in branded pressure suits. They were standing awkwardly around the people who were actually meant to be there: the many engineers who were themselves standing awkwardly, waiting to be allowed to do their jobs. There was a team from Hellas and a team from Elysium, milling around and chatting through suit radios. The last pieces of rail were sitting on the back of a rover, ready to be laid. Some bright PR intern had placed two red ribbons, one at either end, to be cut. The journalists were vamping, the engineers were bored. There was nothing going on.

So when a two-hundred-tonne locomotive barreled out of the desert toward them, it was fair to say there was a lot of excitement.

“You’re getting overheat,” warned Noa Waters, nervously eyeing the reactor control panel.

“It’s fine, Noa,” said Lowell, not even bothering to look.

“It’s 10 percent above the optimal range!”

“Which is exactly where it should be,” Lowell explained patiently. “We lowballed the specs to keep the investors happy. But it’s fine up to thirty over.”

Thirty—”

“Noa, it’s a nuclear reactor,” snapped Lowell. “I’m not an idiot. I wouldn’t take a chance like that if I wasn’t certain.” That seemed to calm Waters down a bit.

They were steaming in in their full glory. For the first time outside the testing-yards, the gleaming locomotive—freshly painted and polished—was pulling two of its brand-new carriages; one for passengers, one for solid freight. The passenger car was filled with project engineers and two lucky journalists. The freight car was empty, but as their return journey would take them past the junction to the uranium mines, Lowell and Waters had decided to make the most of it. (It didn’t hurt that it would endear them to the Elysian government too.) But Lowell and Waters rode in the cab of the locomotive. It was the first time Waters had had time to come on a journey in months. And Lowell was already regretting letting them today.

Waters had tuned the cab’s radio into a news station. The waiting journalists had spotted the train, some fifty klicks away.

Lowell didn’t slow down. Waters glanced at her nervously.

“We can still stop,” they said. “Still do it as they expect.”

“Bugger that,” said Lowell. “This’ll be much more fun. Better send the signal.”

Waters keyed up their own radio, and spoke rapidly to the two teams of engineers waiting on the track ahead. They’d planned this days ago. The engineers knew what they were doing.

Without warning, without telling anyone, they drew their tools, activated their equipment, and began laying rail.

The news radio was going mad with confusion. Why have they started laying track? The ceremony doesn’t start for almost an hour. The locomotive hasn’t arrived yet. But the engineers weren’t talking.

Then, with five minutes to go, some bright spark finally got it, just before the engineers gave the order to clear the track.

“My God,” Lowell heard the journalist say on the radio, “they’re not going to stop. They’re going to drive straight through!”

Waters was listening to their own radio.

“Final checks,” they said to Lowell. “We’re cutting it fine.”

“They’ll manage it,” Lowell replied. Her hand tightened on the lever. They were good brakes, all carbon ceramics and water-cooling. They hadn’t been designed to bring the train to a dead stop from over three hundred kph. They should work . . . but this would be a hell of a time to test them.

The reactor hummed. The train thundered on. Lowell saw Waters putting their helmet on, just in case.

Fifty klicks, the map display read. But then the last red section of track turned green.

“It’s down,” Waters snapped at the same moment. “It’s laid and checked.” They grinned at Lowell. “Go for it.”

Lowell breathed a sigh of relief, issued a silent prayer that the engineers had done their job right, then she let go of the brakes and gave the engine a little more steam.

There were a dozen different professional news outlets covering the ceremony, but the best footage was captured by a lone blogger who’d applied for a press pass on a whim. With two little camera-drones and a handheld rig, they managed to get the perfect angle—and in the following weeks were catapulted to minor celebrity and made a millionaire, as every broadcaster on Mars and Earth paid through the nose to license their footage.

They started with a wide view of the Planitia, with the distant silver serpent of the oncoming train drawing ever closer. One drone focused on the faces of the waiting dignitaries, half-blocked by their gleaming helmets. The other watched the engineers at work as they bolted track segments into place, applied sprays of carbon sheathing, ran sensors and test-carts over the connections.

Their own camera watched the train coming closer. Closer. Growing large in the distance, and then huge close to, a towering, clattering, thundering behemoth of shining steel, pistons pounding, reactor blazing. It was George Stephenson’s fever-dream of the future of the rails. The drones saw the dignitaries milling, captured their confused expressions, then their brief outrage as the engineers pushed them away from the track to a safe distance. The blogger sent one drone up to hang directly above where the train would pass.

The train thundered through the ceremony. It didn’t even slow down. Even in the thin air of Mars, the pressure of its passage knocked several people clean off their feet. The floating drone was buffeted, almost falling from the sky as the train passed beneath.

The second drone captured the exact moment when the train snapped the red ceremonial ribbons in two. The blogger’s handheld camera, before they were knocked backward, caught the locomotive’s window. It captured Engineer Lowell—and it captured her cheeky wave, as she hammered Mars’ first steam train through the ceremony and on, unrelentingly onward, to Hellas Planitia.

*   *   *

The mood aboard the train was (ironically) electric. Or so Waters told Lowell when they came back through the airlock into the cab of the locomotive.

“Everyone’s buzzing,” they said, sitting heavily on a little fold-out seat and taking their helmet off—they didn’t quite trust the airlock seals between the carriages yet. “They loved it. Bugger the pomp and circumstance, they said; let’s push on to the end!” Waters was grinning. Lowell couldn’t help but do the same. Finally, they’re onboard.

“Then let’s go,” she said. Come on then, my beauty, she thought. Show us what you can do.

They were slowed by the weight of the carriages, but Lowell found a comfortable sweet-spot at two hundred and fifty kph. This wasn’t a sprint, after all, but a marathon. They had to arrive in one piece to show the venture was worth it. Over the last stretch of Isdis’ flat desert they ran as smooth as silk, the gleaming rails as close to perfect as they would ever be. The locomotive’s wheels spun beautifully. Waters busied themself by keeping an eye on their remote diagnostics and on Lowell’s mechanical gauges. It was useful. Lowell could concentrate on the actual driving, on the feel of the reactor hum and the grinding of metal wheels on metal rails.

Then they reached the hills.

The incline was gentle, at first. The rails kept to a straight line, rising gradually through the low foothills. Lowell didn’t have to slow down; the incline did the work for her. The locomotive, heavy and laden as it was, could cope with a low hill like this. The thin coatings of carbon nanotubes and fibers on top of the rising rails were helping a great deal.

But then the hills really started to rise. On all sides, the red soil of Mars heaped higher and higher, not yet mountains but still starting to tower over the desert plain. The rails had been laid on the lowest possible point and the gentlest possible incline, a silver river in a great valley. They could have dug a cutting, but it would have taken so long and been so expensive that the idea had been vetoed long ago. No tunnels either. For now, at least, they had to work with the surface of Mars, not reshape it.

Lowell could feel the train slowing, the reactor straining. They were reaching the critical point where no additional grip could stop metal on metal simply sliding away. She felt a wheel slip, jolting the whole train. Come on!

But then the locomotive leapt forward, suddenly finding purchase on rails that flattened out abruptly and curved sharply to the right, and Lowell had to dial the reactor right down to stop the train surging straight off the rails entirely. The next bend, this one to the left, was a little smoother, but it was still too tight for Lowell’s liking. But there had been no other way. The gradient up to Fournier Crater was too steep to cross by any other means than a series of tight horseshoe curves, the track curving back on itself over and over again, inching its way up the steep hillside. It had been the only way. Short of rack and pinion, Lowell thought, and that would have been even slower.

Belatedly, Lowell opened the intercom to the passengers.

“We’ve reached the Fournier gradient, everyone,” she said, as the train lurched around another tight bend. “Sit tight. This’ll take a while.”

And so the locomotive climbed, a few feet at a time, back and forth and back and forth. Lowell kept a nervous eye out of the window. On one side there was red soil and endless slashes of silver rail; on the other, the great drop back down to the foothills and desert below. Almost two kilometers below. There was a spirit level in the cab, and Lowell kept her other eye on that, hand twitching for the brake lever every time it dipped too far to either side. Waters chuckled.

“At least I’m not the only one,” they said. Lowell grunted.

“I’m not worried about the train,” she said. “It’s the bloody rails that’ll get us.” As if to prove her point, they dipped—inward toward the hillside, thankfully, sending Waters stumbling. Lowell swore lightly. “What did they anchor these things on, sand?”

Waters, shaken, made a note on the hologram map.

“We’re over halfway,” they said weakly. “That’s something.”

“Then we just have to go back down again,” Lowell said. Waters groaned.

“Why couldn’t we have just gone to Olympus?” they said. “It’s flat almost all the bloody way!”

“Right up until the tallest mountain on the planet,” said Lowell. Waters flapped their hand.

“Details, details.”

They were actually getting slightly better traction now, and Lowell frowned in confusion until she remembered the weather forecast from the night before. She looked out of the window, and on the rails she thought that she could just discern a little rusty red. Waters peered over her shoulder.

“Rust, already?” they asked.

“Sand,” Lowell said happily. “Just enough to give us grip.” And it came out of the sky every week! That would make their lives a hell of a lot easier when they were running these trains every day.

Every day. Now there was a thought. She’d have to train new drivers, build more trains. They’d need a name for the line, a logo, all sorts of things. She swayed as the train took another switchback, then voiced her thoughts to Waters, who snorted.

“Already taken care of,” they said. “If you ever read any messages not about pressure tolerances and pipework, you’d know there are a dozen people itching to drive this thing.”

“The line?”

“Great Martian Railways,” Waters said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I do have some romance in my soul, you know. But I’ll let you name the train.”

They took another bend, and this time Waters almost stayed upright.

“I have an idea,” Lowell said, “but I’m torn between—”

There was a squeal of metal on metal that reverberated through the cabin, and the whole train juddered so violently that even Lowell almost lost her footing. Waters cracked their head on a valve and swore loudly. Lowell grabbed the brake lever and hauled. Carbon-ceramic blocks snapped into place as the reactor was automatically disengaged, and the metal squeal grew louder still as the train ground to a dead stop. Then there was nothing but the hum of the reactor, and both their panting breaths. Waters fumbled for the intercom.

“Apologies, ladies and gentlemen,” they said like a born conductor. “I think there’s something on the line.”

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024. Great Martian Railways by Hûw Steer

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